Wandering Thoughts

July 26, 2009


Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 10:18 am
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In the worn out torchlight I wrote in my diary:

From now on I will obey the rules of mountain safety, I will obey the rules of mountain safety, will obey the rules of mountain safety.

Exactly what those rules were I did not know. But I wrote and rewrote the promise anyhow, trying to cure the mistake after the fact. Trying bustle the what-ifs out the door. Trying to feel a little less shaken up.

The day had started later than I hoped but soon found momentum. Mid-morning I’d crawled out of my tent into the light of the unexpected arctic sun. It was, I figured, time for a wash, and so I stripped off and bathed by tipping near-frozen lake water out of my billy and over myself. Confronted with impossible odds, the fog of over-sleep surrendered without a fight. I ate, chucked bits and pieces of lunch into my bag, and set off inland, Walkman playing, singing to the valley’s echos.

My target was the lower of two peaks that stood behind the Greenlandic city of Nuuk. My original plan had been to climb both, a ridge ran between them, but I figured I’d left it too late; wasted too much of the full day needed for the trip, so I settled on the shorter hike to the first one. But as I walked under the stretched out sky, I found a purposeful groove. Every step was easier than the last; I sped over the tundra, threading a course between boulders and tea-coloured lakes. My eager legs chewed up the steep track to the lower peak. And at the top I had lunch with an older Danish guy. It was early afternoon already, but he knew the mountain, and was reassuring:

“Oh at the speed you’re walking you’ll make the it to the top of the other one. Easy.”

He also had a map.

“You see this trail? From the top it will take you straight down, so you don’t have to come back this way. Much quicker.”

And so I sped off, along the zig-zagging track, past part-frozen tarns. I was puffed by the time I reached the second peak but it was worth it. Put in its place, Nuuk was no longer a city, but just a tiny thumb of human presence, occupying a insignificant peninsular halfway along an immense fjord. Icebergs were dotted across the water, like the sails of yachts in summer. And it was all so empty, hills rolling into mountains, and falling into the sea. Ridges and ranges, and beyond Nuuk nothing, no sign of people, other than the pile of stones in front of me and two thinly penciled radio masts, just visible on a distant hill line. Shadows from the lowering sun left everything perfectly defined.

I drank it in as long as I dared and then started down. The track from the map wasn’t clear. But I set out the way I thought it lead, finding just enough evidence – a footprint maybe? a boot worn stone? – to convince myself that I was following something. Soon though, the way steepened. I clambered down rock too steep for soil or shrubs. And started to doubt my course, uncertainty increasing with every scrabble. It should have been obvious much, much earlier but it wasn’t until I was about a third of the way down that I realised I definitely wasn’t on a track. When finally I figured that out I stopped. Pondering for a bit what to do. I could climb back up, time was running down, but not that critical. But part of me was still beguiled by my forward momentum, reluctant to give ground, and confident for no other reason than that everything had gone so well so far. So I kept on down. Just don’t go down anything you can’t make it back up, I told myself by way of compromise.

Maybe half an hour later, and probably half way down the ever steepening face I found myself peering over the edge of something too vertical for anyone but a rock climber. Shit. Time to go back up. Except, all of a sudden, back up wasn’t so easy. True to my word, I hadn’t gone down anything I couldn’t return up. But I hadn’t figured on the dose of fear that washed out of my chest when I began to climb. I was utterly alone, unsure of my climbing ability, and far enough north that hypothermia was certain if I ended up stranded overnight. And, of course, I hadn’t told anyone of my plans. There was no one waiting for me back at the empty campground, ready to call mountain rescue should I fail to return. And this made the slope so very much more difficult. Fear made my muscles tense and weak at the same time. And the butterflies banging about in my stomach threatened to pitch me off the rock. I didn’t climb far, and I’m not sure if I could of, when I spied another route down. Not a track, but a way, maybe, off to the left of the one I’d been on, a slender course of not so steep slope skirting round the bluffs which had truncated my original route.  Until I tried it, I’d have no way of knowing if it really did make it all the way to the base. If I tried it, I might end up beyond the point of no return, far enough down that I didn’t have the strength to pull myself back up. Or too late in the fading light. Then again, for all I knew, maybe I was beyond the point of no return already. My anxious eyes ran up and down, trying to answer these questions. And in the end I decided to give it a go. Mainly, I think, because doing so delayed the moment of reckoning, the moment when I discovered I couldn’t actually boulder my way back up.

I got lucky. Each tiny crowberry-covered pitch met up with the next, carrying me past drop-offs, and across. Across, and down, until I hit the tail end of the actual track, the one I’d missed all that way back up at the peak. The track carried me out onto some grassy flats where I celebrated, laughing, talking to myself in an odd croaky voice.

After that, relief carried me away from the mountain’s base, along the side of an inlet and onto the road between the airport and Nuuk. At a bend in the road, I turned and looked back and felt a whole new – ex post – fear. How close it had been. Viewed front-on the slope I descended was little more than a series of cliffs and drop offs. My makeshift path to it’s base the only way down that didn’t involve ropes or falling. I felt a sick churning understanding, aware just how much luck had been my lifeline.

I turned again and started walking, tired legs propelled by a new need for speed: the desire to leave what might have been as far behind me as I could.



XKCD again

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:05 am

I know, it’s kind of sad to keep linking to the same comic stip. But, again, perfect.

July 23, 2009

Where is my mind?

So this morning I discovered my work email account was too large and that I had to delete a bundle of emails. Easy enough. What was more troubling was reading over some of them and having no memory whatsoever of their writing. Where is my mind?

Speaking of which, I know that you can’t actually be a real Pixies fan and like Where is My Mind. Fair enough, I’m not a real Pixies fan. I just like all their songs. Including that one. So here is Where is My Mind.

July 21, 2009

Red Cliff – a really short review

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:42 pm
Tags: ,

In this age of globalisation, with the tides of technology sweeping us all towards a crash of civilisations, it is reassuring to learn that there are some things already held in common.  Some things that transcend the great walls of culture. Some universal beliefs. Some starting points for a universal conversation, maybe.

It’s less reassuring to spend two hours in a cinema learning the first of these commonalities is that movies about war, wherever they are made, are filled with the same grizzly cliches.

July 20, 2009

The typos you make…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:50 pm

from a research note I drafted recently:

“Infant morality is a serious issue.”

Mortality, mortality.

Although, who knows, the morals of infants may have development ramifications we don’t yet fully understand.

July 18, 2009

The Comeback

It was the best day I’d seen at the best surf spot around these parts. Surf law says I can’t give the game away and tell you where it is, or even reveal too many telling details. So maybe it was a beach-break with the best sand bar ever, or maybe a rocky point, swells crunching down its length. Or maybe a river bar after the flood of the decade. Or maybe a long shallow reef. The main thing is, it was the best day I’d ever seen. Just the, best, day. Double head high sets, blue-green walls, held up by an offshore wind until they spun off down the line, in hissing curving tubes.

The car park was full. Someone videoing the action. Someone nursing a snapped board. Hangers on, restless dogs, people exchanging excited diagnoses. Out the back was a serious pack of serious surfers. Old grumpy guys, locals, rippers, wanna be rippers, and one weird guy who limped down the beach and paddled into the line-up wearing a single white shoe.

The weird guy, that was me, of course. My heart hammering as I paddled. Watching the waves, breaking faster and angrier as they sped down the line. I tested the shoe with my good foot. I had to wear it; I couldn’t stand on a surfboard without it. The pain in my heal was too much. The padding of the shoe helped, got me into the gentle waves round home. But now as I paddled out along the edge of the exploding whitewater towards the serious pack of serious surfers I wondered what would become of the shoe and I should we actually catch something.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t surfed waves like that before. I had – plenty of times, from the outer edge of Atlantic Islands, to the murky beaches of Mexico, to the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean. But I’d done all that when I was whole. When mind and body worked as one. Now I wondered: could I even get to my feet quick enough; would I trip over the shoe; would I snap if I did.

In the end it all came down to one wave – my first. It broke wide, away from the pack and I spun into it a little way down the line as the barrel started to race. Lots of things could have happened: I could have been caught in the lip and pitched into the shingle; I could have nose dived on the drop and slapped into the shallows, I could have slid sideways under the lip as I tried to angle into the tube. Could of, could of, could of, but – in that instant, in that moment the story hangs upon – didn’t. Instead my feet fell into place under me, I made the lurching drop and pivoted into the tube, racing the raucous breaking swell. In the end I lost the race – flipped over the falls. But by then I knew all I needed to know. I knew I could still surf. I paddled out the back, where the serious surfers bobbed like black swans, and started catching waves, big draining barrels, beaten by some but making most, swooping through tube after tube, board chattering, hurtling towards the channel. Even the grumpy old guys hooted me on a couple. I can not tell you how happy I felt.

That was 2005. Back in the present, the methotrexate is helping. I’m getting round a lot better. But I’m still a long, long way from surfing again. Hoping though, as you can imagine, for another chance at a come back. They’re almost worth going away for.

July 13, 2009


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:41 pm

Well I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Parked on the other side of the street for a change, under the trees, nipped out for a meal, and returned to find my car covered, like a proto-Nauru

July 12, 2009

Gang Leader for a Day

Filed under: Going Places,Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:21 pm
Tags: ,

Research for my Masters thesis took me to Brazil. I wasn’t particularly brave about it. Two days before the trip a friend and I replaced the white laces on my brand new running shoes with some old black ones, cunningly, we figured, reducing the risk that I’d get mugged for my shoes (yes, I’m serious, this actually happened). When I first got to Porto Alegre I became a sort of inverse vampire, desperately scampering back to my hotel the moment things got dusky – so certain was I that the streets would become filled with muggers the moment the sun sank behind the horizon. When I got to Rio – fed for months on tales of the dangers of the city – I practically commando rolled across the tarmac at the domestic airport.

In other words, I was nothing like Sudhir Venkatesh, sociologist and author of Gang Leader for a Day. He spent years researching the housing complexes of Chicago, starting off his project by being detained at gun point.

I’ve written a review of Venkatesh’s book, which is up at Scoop Review of Books.

It’s also over the fold.

Click here to read more

July 9, 2009


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings,Staying Places — terence @ 7:00 pm
Tags: ,

I know, I know, I’m always saying this but, this evening…

… clouds retreating east, pulled back like a curtain, letting in the winter sky; sunset to the west, smouldering behind the mountains. The wash of breaking waves in bits and pieces along the coast. The hopeful blink of a lighthouse as it waited for the stars…

…had to have been the most beautiful evening that Wellington ever stitched together.

July 8, 2009

Yeah, Yeah – We all know what you’re against, but what are you for?

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:02 pm

As a younger man I was never short of a cause. All for this, all for that. Nowadays though, older and wearier, it’s harder to say just what it is I stand for. Hard, but not impossible. Whatever this is, I’m all for it!

July 5, 2009

(Wrong) Word!

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:01 am

From the Guardian:

It probably seemed a good idea at the time. But Russia‘s attempt to create a joint gas venture with Nigeria is set to become one of the classic branding disasters of all time ‑ after the new company was named Nigaz.

H/T Chris Blattman


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:26 am

Halfway down I got the speed wobbles. Momentum and gravity too much for the cheap rubber bearings, the skateboard under my feet started whipping this way and that. Quickly, our trajectories became irreconcilable and the board shot off leaving me alone with the tarmac. For a few steps I ran, top-heavy and twisting, desperately trying to stay upright, then a foot clipped a leg and the inevitable took place. Down I went, smacking into the ground, rolling, thwap, thwap, thwap. I lay there for a while, black jeans torn, blood starting to seep from various grazes, before eventually picking myself up, shaky and aching.

I’d like to tell you that I found my board, pulled it out of the bushes, limped back up the road, turned around and conquered that damn hill. But I didn’t, I just hobbled off home. And that was pretty much the end of my skating days.

So I never became a skater but I’ve always been an avid spectator. Not just for the skill, but also for the way they turn the ugly, forgotten, functional parts of the city into sites of fun and grace.

July 1, 2009

Spray on Anesthetic

Filed under: Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 8:40 pm
Tags: ,

I don’t think spray on anesthetic ever really caught on. It must have seemed like a good idea – local anesthetic that could be applied without a needle. No need for all that nasty jabbing and piercing. It sure seemed good to me, back in 1999, when the rheumatologist at Charing Cross Hospital offered to use it when he drained the fluid off my softball sized knee. I’ve never got on with needles. It’s almost a phobia. As I waited for my appointment I’d been pacing round the waiting room trying to think brave thoughts, disturbing the old ladies queued up for their gold-shots. As it was, the draining of my knee already involved a big, thick needle through which the fluid was to be sucked out. So one less needle seemed like a great idea. “Sure, I’ll give it a go.”

And now I know why spray on anesthetic never caught on – it doesn’t work. It made my skin slightly numb but that was it. The fluid draining needle just laughed at that, cut like a dagger through my skin and gnawed on as many nerve endings as it could. I was in agony from the start. Things didn’t get better when the rheumatologist started squeezing my knee to get the fluid out.

“Ow. Ow. Ow!”
“How’s that anaesthetic working?”
“Not so goo-ooooouu-ooouuu-dddddd.”
“Nurse, I think you’re going to have to restrain the patient.”

The nurse, I can’t remember her name – although, oddly, I do remember she was from Winchester – pinned me back against the bed. The draining continued. I wasn’t particularly brave.

“Arrrrgggghhhh. Oh god stop. Stop please. The needle, it’s killing me! ARRGGHHH”

He didn’t stop. Although, sometime, maybe halfway through the process, he did look up and pause for a moment.

“Nurse,” his voice took on a thoughtful tone, “do you think we should close the door to the waiting room. Perhaps?”
Both the nurse and I turned to look. The door. We’d all forgotten. Wide open. The whole time. Conveying my screams.

Later, after it had all ended, I limped back out. The waiting room was still full. With little old ladies. Most looking quite a lot paler than they did when I went in.

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